On 9 September 2021 the Court of Justice pronounced its judgment in the case RK (C-422/20) concerning the mechanism of the transfer of jurisdiction under the Succession Regulation. The judgement also gives an insight into transitional provisions of the regulation. The preliminary questions originate from the Higher Court in Cologne (Oberlandesgericht Köln). The opinion on the case was delivered earlier this year by Advocate General Szpunar. The case was already commented here by Matthias Weller.
Facts of the Case
A mutual will was drafted in 1990 in German language, in which CR and her husband (German national) designated each other as heirs. After the death of the husband, last habitually resident in Spain, CR applied to a German court for, inter alia, a European Succession Certificate. The jurisdiction of German courts was successfully contested by RK, the deceased’s brother. Hence, CR commenced proceeding in Spain. On CR’s request, the Spanish court decided not to hear the case noting that German courts are better placed to do so, due to practical circumstances, including CR’s residence and location of assets. CR filed another application to German court accompanying it with the decision of the Spanish court.
Transfer of Jurisdiction Mechanisms
It is worth reminding that pursuant to Article 4 of the Succession Regulation, the courts of the Member State of the last habitual residence of the deceased are competent in succession matters. Also, the law applicable is designated by this connecting factor (Article 21(1)), which allows for the coincidence of ius and forum so desired by the Regulation. It may happen however that the deceased has chosen (one of) national laws as applicable, which results in the distortion of the ius and forum principle. To avoid this (at least to certain extent), the Regulation, as explained by recital 27 “provides for a series of mechanisms”, which should restore the situation, in which the competent court applies its own succession law as applicable. These mechanisms are provided for in Articles 5 – 9 of the regulation and consist of the “transfer” of jurisdiction to the courts of the Member State the law of which was chosen as applicable by the deceased.
In accordance with one of the mechanisms, based on Article 6(a), the court seized pursuant to Article 4, may at the request of one of the parties, decline jurisdiction if a court of another Member State is “better placed to rule on the succession” given “practical circumstances of the succession, such as the habitual residence of the parties and the location of the assets”. In such case, pursuant to Article 7(a), the “national” courts “have jurisdiction to rule on the succession”, provided that “a court previously seised has declined jurisdiction in the same case” pursuant to Article 6.
Declining of Jurisdiction
In the RK case, the Oberlandesgericht Köln has doubts if it may assume that the Spanish court declined its jurisdiction pursuant to Article 6(a), given that this is not clearly stated in its decision. Answering this first question, the Court of Justice underlined that it is not crucial that the declining of jurisdiction is express, as long as refraining from hearing the case indicates that the court will not hear it, because another court was found to be better placed to do so (para. 37). This conclusion is justified by the aim of creating in the EU an area of freedom, security and justice based in the mutual trust between Member States (para. 37). The Court of Justice found that the regulation does not provide for the form, in which the declining of jurisdiction should be pronounced (para. 36). It also noticed that the Spanish court used the expression of the Spanish language version of the regulation, namely “to refrain from hearing” (abstenerse de conocer), instead of “to decline jurisdiction”, which is used in other language versions, including the German one. The difference in the wording in the language versions of the regulation and the resulting differences in the wording of decisions should not be relevant, when the intention of the declining court is clear enough.
Assuming jurisdiction after decline
The Oberlandesgericht Köln had also doubts if before assuming jurisdiction pursuant to Article 7(a) it may verify whether the prerequisites for declining jurisdiction pursuant to Article 6(a) were met. Namely whether a valid choice of applicable law was made, whether there was an application for “transfer” filed by one of the parties and whether it was examined if another court is in fact better placed to hear the case (para. 41).
Answering the second question, the Court of Justice underlined that no such verification may be exercised (para. 52). The Court of Justice classified the decision on declining jurisdiction as a “judgement” subject to automatic recognition in other Member States, without any possibility of reviewing it as to its substance (para. 45-47). Such conclusion is justified by the principle of mutual recognition of judgements and mutual trust (para. 48). It seems that as an effect of such recognition the court seized pursuant to Article 7(a) must assume jurisdiction (compare para. 58 in fine of the opinion).
The Court of Justice does not give clear response to the doubt that resonates in the opinion whether the decision on declining jurisdiction pursuant to Article 6(1) is binding the court seized pursuant to Article 7(1) as to the determination of law applicable, as declining jurisdiction assumes the exitance of a valid choice of applicable law made by the deceased. On one hand, the court of a Member State assuming jurisdiction pursuant to Article 7(1) should be able to assess independently, which law is applicable (para. 36 opinion). On the other hand, one should not differentiate between a choice of applicable law, which is valid for the purpose of declining jurisdiction and a choice, which is valid for the purpose of establishing applicable law (para. 46 of the opinion). The opinion seems to opt for the “stronger” effect of the judgement, including the determination as to applicable law (para. 46 in fine of the opinion).
Choice of Applicable Law Presumption
As already mentioned, the prerequisite for declining jurisdiction pursuant to Article 6(1) is that “the deceased had chosen as the law to govern his succession the law of a Member State of which he was a national (recital 27)”. In the case at hand, the mutual will of 1990 contained no such choice. As, pursuant to Article 84, the Succession Regulation applies from 17 August 2015 to the succession of persons who die starting from that day (Article 83(1)), it contains transitional provisions relating to dispositions of property upon death made before 17 August 2015 of a deceased person, whose succession is governed by the Succession Regulation.
Pursuant to Article 83(4), in case of a disposition of property upon death made prior to 17 August 2015, there is a presumption that the deceased has chosen as applicable the law, in accordance with which this disposition was made, provided that this law could be chosen pursuant to the regulation (namely, it is a national law of the deceased). For example, in the commented case, assuming that the mutual will was indeed made in accordance with German law (at least, as mentioned in the judgment, it was prepared in German language), German law is presumed to be chosen by the deceased, who was a German national at the moment of making the choice and/or at the moment of death. Unfortunately, the Court of Justice is silent on how to determine whether the disposition was made “in accordance with” a given succession law.
The answer to the third preliminary question posed by the Oberlandesgericht Köln concerns the above provision of Article 83(4). The Court of Justice stated that the choice of applicable law, which is the prerequisite for transfer mechanism of Article 6(1) may result from the operation of the above presumption (para. 61). However, as results from the answer to previous questions, the court assuming jurisdiction pursuant to Article 7(1) is not allowed to verify the existence of the prerequisite.
It seems that in RK the Court of Justice provides for practical solutions, considering specificities of procedural laws of Member States and understanding that declining jurisdiction may be pronounced in different forms. The conclusion that no control may be exercised over the decline decision pursuant to Article 6(1) also seems perfectly in line with mutual trust principle as implemented in the instruments on EU judicial cooperation in civil matters. It is not entirely clear however whether this decision has a binding effect on courts of other EU Member States also with respect to the determination of applicable law, as a valid choice made by the deceased is a prerequisite for such decision. Additionally, one may regret that the Court of Justice have not elaborated on what does it mean that a disposition of property upon death was made “in accordance with the law” of a given state for the purpose of Article 83(4).